You May Be Thinking: Is Hockey a Canadian Sport? Let’s Find Out

You May Be Thinking: Is Hockey a Canadian Sport? Let's Find Out

Hockey In Canada

Who doesn’t love a great game of hockey? Across the globe, fans of the sport enjoy spectating and playing it year-round. No matter where you live, if you’ve ever heard that hockey is a Canadian sport, you may be wondering if that’s true.

Hockey is a Canadian sport. Windsor in Nova Scotia, Canada, is known as the birthplace of ice hockey. While the first semblances of the game can be traced back to the 18th century in the United Kingdom, the first official ice hockey game commenced in Montreal, Canada. Today, it’s Canada’s national winter sport.

So how did something like ice hockey get from the United Kingdom to Canada, and how did it become a formal sport? Why is it Canada’s national winter sport? We’ll get into all of that and more as you read on.

Hockey: A Brief Overview

To dig into the answer to this question, let’s start with the basics of hockey. Hockey is the sport we know and love where two teams play each other, each trying to move a ball or puck into the opposing team’s goal using a hockey stick.

Before we go any further, did you know that when we say “hockey“, people in different countries interpret different things? Depending on your geographic location and the experiences you grew up with, you are likely thinking about one of many types of hockey, like field hockey, rink hockey, bandy, or ice hockey.

In most parts of the world, when “hockey” is said on its own, it usually means field hockey. But in the United States, Canada, Russia, and most of Northern and Eastern Europe, you mean ice hockey when you say “hockey”. If you’d like to know, we’ve written an article covering which is older, field hockey or ice hockey.

And when we think about ice hockey, that’s where we get thinking about the beloved country of Canada.

Why exactly is it that so many people think of Canada when they think of ice hockey? Is it, in fact, a Canadian sport? Where does that strong association come from?

The History of Ice Hockey Is Rooted in Canada

The Early Years: 1700-1800s

It’s believed that the roots of a game similar to ice hockey can be traced back to the 18th century in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Back then, people played simple stick and ball games, and eventually, these games were brought to North America. A number of similar winter games evolved, using informal rules. These games would later become known as ice polo and shinny.

As time went by, the games eventually evolved into what’s now known as the contemporary sport of ice hockey, which culminated in Canada.

There are 24 reports of hockey-esque games being played in Canada in the 19th century before 1875. Five of these reported games used the name “hockey”. The first organized indoor hockey game commenced on March 3, 1875, in Montreal, Canada.

Many characteristics of that 1875 game are the same as if you’d watch an ice hockey game today. The players used the same length ice rink as we do today, and they used a version of a puck. Rather than a ball or bung, their puck was a “flat circular piece of wood,” with the idea that it more successfully stayed on the ice and protected the spectators.

That original game consisted of two nine-player teams, including James Creighton and many students from McGill University. The first game’s goal posts were 8 feet (2.4 m) apart, while today’s goals are six feet wide.

So is hockey a Canadian sport? Yes, it was officially developed in Canada, as shown at the, and remains very popular there today — but more on that later. From the day that the first game was played, it caught on worldwide, and the rest is history.

Evolution After the First Game Was Played

After that first game caught people’s attention, it was evident that people were intrigued by the sport. There would be iterations of the rules and finer details as the game evolved, but it was up and running and catching on like wildfire.

Formation of Clubs, Leagues, and Associations

By 1877, the first ice hockey club was founded - McGill University Hockey Club. After that, the Quebec Hockey Club started in 1878 and then the Montreal Victorias in 1881. Players continued to learn the game and join teams, as the pool of spectators who loved to watch and cheer on their teams grew. Enthusiasm around the sport persisted, and it continued to expand.

Amateur teams kept popping up left and right, and eventually, there were enough teams and interest in the sport to hold the very first “world championship” of ice hockey. There was a well-known Winter Carnival each year in Montreal, and it was the perfect avenue to host the championship game in 1883.

This game consisted of two thirty-minute halves. By then, they had names for the positions of center, rover, goaltender, left and right-wing, point and cover-point. The McGill team was proclaimed the winner of the world championship, and they took home the Carnival Cup.

In 1886, the teams that competed in the Winter Carnival organized an official association, the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada (AHAC). They proceeded to play a season made up of various “challenges” to the current champion.

Tournaments and Trophies

What would any beloved and growing sport be without a championship trophy?

The Stanley Cup, which is now regarded as the oldest professional sports trophy in North America, was introduced and first awarded in 1893 to honour the Canadian amateur leagues’ champion. A shining symbol of ice hockey supremacy, it was then called The Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup. It’s remained a pillar of the sport and went on to be the Stanley Cup we know today, awarded to the National Hockey League champion.

Ice Hockey Goes Professional

At the turn of the 20th century, it was time for ice hockey to get serious, so it took the next official step to professionalization. Professional ice hockey originated right around the year 1900. In the early years of the 1900s, the Canadian rules were formally adopted by the Ligue Internationale de Hockey Sur Glace, which eventually became the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF).

By 1902, the Western Pennsylvania Hockey League (WPHL) began employing professionals, and it was the first to do so. The league joined forces with teams in both Ontario and Michigan in 1904 to form the first entirely professional league, the International Professional Hockey League (IPHL).

The WPHL and IPHL began paying players from Canada to play, taking the game to a new level. In response to this, Canadian leagues realized they had better start paying their amateur players as well. With all available hockey players receiving paid offers to play, the competition was fierce. The IPHL had a hard time recruiting players, so in 1907, it disbanded.

In 1909, the National Hockey Association (NHA) was founded in Montreal, Canada. The association would work hard to refine the rules of the game further. The rover position was dropped, the game was divided into three 20-minute periods, and minor and major penalties were introduced.

One year later, the NHA began playing with seven teams in Quebec and Ontario. It was one of the first major leagues in professional ice hockey, which was an enormous milestone for the sport and its fans.

By the eighth season of play in the NHA, disputes arose, and team owners met to discuss the league’s future. A vote to suspend the NHA settled the disagreements.

When did the National Hockey League join the picture? It was on November 26, 1917, that the National Hockey League (NHL) was established in Montreal, Quebec, as a men’s professional ice hockey league and reorganized successor of the NHA. Frank Calder served as the first president of the league, and he served until he died in 1943.

The NHL was immediately widely recognized as the world’s premier ice hockey league and soon expanded into the United States. The first American team in the league was the Boston Bruins, who joined in 1924. This NHL is the same league we know today with 31 franchises (21 in the United States and 7 in Canada). If you’re curious, we’ve written an article that goes over the number of Canadien players in the NHL throughout history.

Professional hockey leagues also developed later in Europe, and today, professional leagues exist in most countries of Europe.

Ice Hockey Joins the Olympic Games & Women’s League

Another giant step for the sport of ice hockey took place during the summer of 1920 - it was played for the very first time at the Summer Olympics that year. You guessed it - a Canadian team won; the Winnipeg Falcons. In the Winter Olympics of 1924, men’s ice hockey was played.

Even though women had played ice hockey all along since the game’s earliest beginnings, it wasn’t until much later that women’s ice hockey was professionally organized. In 1990, the first IIHF Women’s World Championship game was held. The 1998 Winter Olympics was the first time a women’s ice hockey game was included.

If you’d like to know more about women’s hockey, we’ve written an article describing why hockey is also a women’s sport.

Canadian Ice Hockey Achievements

Many notable athletes in hockey have come from Canada, which builds the association that hockey is a Canadian sport. In Canada, exceptional achievements in sports are recognized through Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, and a dedicated Hockey Hall of Fame also exists to honour athletic accomplishments. Additionally, the Lou Marsh Trophy is the country’s annual award for the top athlete, as decided by a panel of journalists.

As you may guess, many Canadian ice hockey athletes have won the Lou Marsh Trophy over the years and are featured in the Canadian Halls of Fame.

Lou Marsh Trophy

The Lou Marsh Trophy originated in 1936 and has continued each year since then, except during World War II. It may go to either a professional or amateur athlete each year. Named in honour of Lou Marsh, the award recipient is chosen each year by a panel of journalists and sports media professionals worldwide. The vote takes place in December.

In total, the trophy has seen 79 award ceremonies. Sixty-two different individual athletes have won, as well as three pairs of athletes. Nine of those winners were ice hockey athletes, who won a total of 13 of the years. This makes ice hockey the top sport represented by the trophy, followed closely by figure skating and swimming.

Wayne Gretzky, former professional ice hockey all-star, has won this trophy four times, which is more wins of this trophy than any other athlete.

Wins Sport # of Individuals
13 Ice hockey 9
9 Figure skating 7
8 Swimming 8
7 Track and field 6
6 Alpine skiing 5

Source: Wikipedia: Lou Marsh Trophy

Canadian Sports Hall of Fame and Hockey Hall of Fame

The mission of the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame is to “give all Canadians a way to embrace the country’s physically competitive spirit as their own”. When it comes to the country’s national winter sport, you better believe they’re embracing hockey in and out of that hall of fame.

Inside the international award-winning 40,000 sq. ft. building located in Calgary, AB, Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame has state-of-the-art technology to share and convey the stories of Canada’s greatest sports heroes. Over 684 hall of famers have been inducted since its establishment in 1955, many of whom are ice hockey athletes.

Near the middle of the country, in Toronto, ON, the Hockey Hall of Fame is a museum and hall of fame dedicated entirely to ice hockey history. The Hall of Fame was founded in 1943 and began inducting honorees in 1945. Visitors to the downtown Toronto building located inside a historic Bank of Montreal building can admire exhibits about teams, players, records from the NHL, memorabilia, trophies, and more.

Honorees to the Canadian Hockey Hall of Fame are selected by an 18-person committee that consists of players, coaches, and others. Honorees may be hockey players, builders, or on-ice officials. If you’re unfamiliar with the builders’ category, this is for coaches, commentators, general managers, team owners, and other individuals who have helped “build” the game. There is a subcategory at the Hockey Hall of Fame for female players.

As of 2020, there are 289 players (seven of whom are women), 112 builders, and 16 on-ice officials honoured in the Hall of Fame.

National Sport Status for Canada

Another reason ice hockey is so strongly associated with Canada is this one big deal: it’s one of the country’s official national sports.

In 1994, after their long history with the sport, the National Sports Act of Canada was passed to recognize hockey and lacrosse as Canada’s national sports. The game, commonly known as ice hockey, was deemed the national winter sport in Canada, and lacrosse was declared the national summer sport.

Without a doubt, you can now likely see why so many people think hockey is a Canadian sport - because it is. While it’s undoubtedly a beloved and popular sport in many different countries as well, there are countless bits of history and significant milestones along the sport’s journey that happened in Canada, where it originated. Rightfully so, its deep-rooted history in Canada justifies why it is now the country’s national winter sport.

Highlights of Hockey in Canada

Knowing all about ice hockey history, what are the highlights as we look back over the years? What’s the significance of the sport today? What is its status? Ice hockey is still thriving and has a large fan base in the world of professional and leisure sports.

Ice Hockey in Canada Today

We’ll give you one guess at Canada’s most prevalent winter sport. Any guesses? That’s right; it’s ice hockey. And for the record, in Canada, it would just be “hockey”. It’s also revered as the country’s most popular spectator sport and their most successful sport among international competitors. Hockey is often considered an integral component of their country’s culture and national identity.

Canadian Hockey Arenas

What about indoor hockey arenas? Small rinks built in Canada in the early years were just large enough to hold the spectators for the new and growing sport. Some were demolished to make way for larger ones, like Montreal’s Victoria Rink, which was built in 1862 and demolished in 1925. Unfortunately, many older rinks perished in fires since they were constructed of wood in a hazardous old fashioned style.

However, the Stannus Street Rink in Windsor, Nova Scotia, erected in 1897, still stands today. It’s believed to be the oldest original indoor ice hockey rink still standing, but it’s not used for hockey anymore.

Today, outdoor rinks are often constructed just for the winter season to accommodate the many citizens who enjoy playing and watching the sport.

Economic Benefits of Hockey in Canada

In 2015, a study reported on Sports Net confirmed that economic activity in Canada related to ice hockey totalled over $11 billion annually. They found that more than $1 billion in tourism revenue flowed into communities that are home to less than 100,000 people, thanks to Canadian hockey’s popularity.

Of the total Canadian economic activity involved in hockey, 2.6 billion of the dollars were estimated to move directly between communities within Canada each year. 52% of that was from tourism, 31% from NHL clubs and related events, 10% from NHL salaries that come back home, and 6% from corporate scholarship funding.

Looking at that total $11.2 billion annual economic activity related to hockey, again, most comes from tourism, with spectator-related activity being the next contributor. This includes the many dollars spent on merchandise, events, fantasy, game tickets, souvenirs, season passes, concessions, parking, and more.

Fees paid for minor hockey league participation like registration and equipment played a part in the economic success, as did money related to professional players and coaches, among other things.

You may also be wondering if hockey equipment is cheaper in Canada due to the country’s large number of players. We’ve written an article covering that subject.

Participation and Popularity of Canadian Ice Hockey

A 2010 study by the Government of Canada on Canadian Heritage examined sport participation numbers, finding that an estimated 1.3 million adults in the country played ice hockey, coming in second only to golf. Many adults play in recreational or amateur leagues, in addition to those who play in organized professional leagues.

Additionally, it’s one of the most played sports in Canada at the youth level. Another 2010 survey concluded that 22% of households have at least one child who plays ice hockey, making it the third most popular sport among kids in the country next to soccer and swimming.

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, today there are seven successful Canadian teams in the NHL: the Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver Canucks, Montreal Canadiens, Calgary Flames, Ottawa Senators, Winnipeg Jets, and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Remember that the league was founded in Canada, and today, it still retains substantial Canadian representation. Roughly half of the players in the NHL are Canadian.

In Canada, Hockey Night, a longtime national Saturday evening television broadcast, is a much-anticipated broadcast that features Canadian NHL teams.

Additionally, junior-age ice hockey is also a popular spectator sport in Canada today. There is a junior-age Canadian Hockey League that is broadcast nationally, and it has an annual Memorial Cup championship that is extremely popular on television.

Played in December and January, the annual IIHF World U20 Championship, played during December and January, is highly-anticipated by Canadian television watchers. Being so popular, it has been hosted in Canada several times throughout the years.

How Ice Hockey Strengthens Canada

In addition to the many positive ways hockey contributes to Canada’s identity, culture, and economy, it also brings other less tangible benefits.

The 2010 study by the Canadian Government that examined the economic impact of hockey in Canada also summarized results that fell into categories outside of financial benefit. Those included:

  • Increase in volunteerism. More than 150,000 Canadian people offer volunteer hours related to hockey, including coaching, administration, help at tournaments, and more. Their contributions average about five hours per week of volunteerism.
  • Hockey rinks beautify the Canadian landscape. About 2,500 rinks are reported in the country. Ontario has the most at 898, Alberta next at 420, and Quebec at 358.
  • Love of the game. Canadian citizens spend on average seven hours of their time each week engaging with hockey during the sport’s season. The NHL is the most followed sport in the country, with about 80% of residents reporting themselves as fans. 90% of Canadians say they believe that hockey is a crucial part of the country’s fabric.
  • Media content. An estimated 52,000+ hours of “NHL hockey talk” dominate the media waves in Canada from over 180 media outlets.

Ice Hockey in Other Parts of the World

Wikipedia confirms that ice hockey is the most popular sport in Finland, the Czech Republic, Latvia, and Slovakia, in addition to Canada. Remarkably, ice hockey is also the national sport of Latvia.

North America’s National Hockey League (NHL) is known to be the strongest professional ice hockey league, as it attracts top professional ice hockey players from all around the world.

Internationally, ice hockey rules were initially adopted from the gold standard Canadian rules in the early 1900s. Today, the sport remains strong worldwide.

The Canadian Encyclopedia reports that the volume of NHL players recruited from Canadian junior hockey saw numbers plummet by 20% in recent years. This is because the sport is growing in Europe and the US, so an increasing amount of players are now coming from those countries. Even so, many professional all-stars do continue to emerge from the rinks in Canada.

As for competition in world championships, as strong as ice hockey is in Canada, it’s no secret that the country has fierce competition in other countries. Between 1994 and 2001, Canada won the world championship twice, but guess who won it four times? The Czech Republic. During those years, Sweden and Finland each won one time. Sweden’s ice hockey team was the winner of the 1994 Olympic gold medal, and the Czech Republic took it home in 1998.

When Canada lost the World Cup to the Americans in 1996 and again to the Czechs in the Nagano Olympics of 1998, the failures affected the country. The media and experts were concerned that Canada was no longer able to dominate or even put up a good showing in its national winter sport, which they should be the best at. Other countries had and continue to have strong ice hockey teams, in addition to Canada.

The Big Six Men’s Ice Hockey Teams

In the world of men’s international ice hockey, six national teams have been particularly dominant in competitive play since the 1950s and really throughout the history of international hockey. This group is called the Big Six, and in addition to Canada, it comprises America and four European countries, including the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, and Sweden.

The four European teams are sometimes referred to as the “European Big Four” or “The Big Four”, especially to distinguish them from Canada and America’s North American teams. Some argue that the term “Big Six” should be adapted to “Big Seven” to include Switzerland, which also has a strong showing in the sport.

There have been 201 total medals awarded in the IIHF World Championships, and of those, only twenty were won by teams not included in the Big Six. Of those, only five were won in the years since 1953. Out of the 69 total men’s Olympic ice hockey medals ever awarded, less than ten of those have not been won by a Big Six team. Pretty impressive statistics for a group of countries with powerful dominance in the world of ice hockey.


The history of ice hockey is deeply rooted in Canada. From the first game played in the early years of the sport to its evolution through the years, it has strong Canadian ties. It’s fascinating to see how the sport has grown and evolved from a leisurely pastime to something with organized leagues, professional associations, paid players, and eventually included in the Olympic games.

As a sport that’s known and loved today around the world, it’s one that many countries can claim as a favourite, but only Canada can say it’s the birthplace of ice hockey.